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Shenstone’s School-Mistress
by [?]

The inimitable “School-Mistress” of Shenstone is one of the felicities of genius; but the purpose of this poem has been entirely misconceived. Johnson, acknowledging this charming effusion to be “the most pleasing of Shenstone’s productions” observes, “I know not what claim it has to stand among the moral works.” The truth is, that it was intended for quite a different class by the author, and Dodsley, the editor of his works, must have strangely blundered in designating it “a moral poem.” It may be classed with a species of poetry, till recently, rare in our language, and which we sometimes find among the Italians, in their rime piacevoli, or poesie burlesche, which do not always consist of low humour in a facetious style with jingling rhymes, to which form we attach our idea of a burlesque poem. There is a refined species of ludicrous poetry, which is comic yet tender, lusory yet elegant, and with such a blending of the serious and the facetious, that the result of such a poem may often, among its other pleasures, produce a sort of ambiguity; so that we do not always know whether the writer is laughing at his subject, or whether he is to be laughed at. Our admirable Whistlecraft met this fate![1] “The School-Mistress” of Shenstone has been admired for its simplicity and tenderness, not for its exquisitely ludicrous turn!

This discovery I owe to the good fortune of possessing the edition of “The School-Mistress,” which the author printed under his own directions, and to his own fancy.[2] To this piece of LUDICROUS POETRY, as he calls it, “lest it should be mistaken,” he added a LUDICROUS INDEX, “purely to show fools that I am in jest.” But “the fool,” his subsequent editor, who, I regret to say, was Robert Dodsley, thought proper to suppress this amusing “ludicrous index,” and the consequence is, as the poet foresaw, that his aim has been “mistaken.”

The whole history of this poem, and this edition, may be traced in the printed correspondence of Shenstone. Our poet had pleased himself by ornamenting “A sixpenny pamphlet,” with certain “seemly” designs of his, and for which he came to town to direct the engraver; he appears also to have intended accompanying it with “The deformed portrait of my old school-dame, Sarah Lloyd.” The frontispiece to this first edition represents the “Thatched-house” of his old schoolmistress, and before it is the “birch-tree,” with “the sun setting and gilding the scene.” He writes on this, “I have the first sheet to correct upon the table. I have laid aside the thoughts of fame a good deal in this unpromising scheme; and fix them upon the landskip which is engraving, the red letter which I propose, and the fruit-piece which you see, being the most seemly ornaments of the first sixpenny pamphlet that was ever so highly honoured. I shall incur the same reflection with Ogilby, of having nothing good but my decorations. I expect that in your neighbourhood and in Warwickshire there should be twenty of my poems sold. I print it myself. I am pleased with Mynde’s engravings.”

On the publication Shenstone has opened his idea on its poetical characteristic. “I dare say it must be very incorrect; for I have added eight or ten stanzas within this fortnight. But inaccuracy is more excusable in ludicrous poetry than in any other. If it strikes any, it must be merely people of taste; for people of wit without taste, which comprehends the larger part of the critical tribe, will unavoidably despise it. I have been at some pains to recover myself from A. Phi**** misfortune of mere childishness, ‘Little charm of placid mien,’ etc. I have added a ludicrous index purely to show (fools) that I am in jest; and my motto, ‘O, qua sol habitabiles illustrat oras, maxima principum!’ is calculated for the same purpose. You cannot conceive how large the number is of those that mistake burlesque for the very foolishness it exposes; which observation I made once at the Rehearsal, at Tom Thumb, at Chrononhotonthologos, all which, are pieces of elegant humour. I have some mind to pursue this caution further, and advertise it ‘The School-Mistress,’ etc. a very childish performance everybody knows (novorum more). But if a person seriously calls this, or rather burlesque, a childish or low species of poetry, he says wrong. For the most regular and formal poetry may be called trifling, folly, and weakness, in comparison of what is written with a more manly spirit in ridicule of it.’